Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: The College Years
"I was benefiting from a history that had come to negate my history"
Reds and Blacks
It is the end of June 1959, and it’s like a dream. I board the train at Limuru, the same station that four years back had seen me shed tears of despair when the officials would not let me get on the train bound for Alliance High School because I did not have a permit to travel to another region as then required by the martial laws that regulated African travel within. I had to be smuggled into another train by a sympathetic lower ranking officer. Now, four years later, I am boarding another train bound, not for any region within the country but for the neighboring territory. And as in the past, my mother remains my anchor. Ever since she first sent me to school 12 years back, she has always wanted me to venture, to see what’s out there.
I am leaving the colonial Kenya of terror and uncertainty but also the country of my private dreams and desires. Among the many who have come to see me off is Minneh Nyambura, whose smiling eyes make my heart beat so loudly I think people around me can hear the boom. A week or so earlier, we had made a secret soul pact.
On the first of July I woke up from the liminal space between private dreams and public nightmares into that of a moving train that hooted escape, at last, escape, in my mind at least. My previous train journeys had been between my home in Limuru and my high school in Kikuyu, and I traveled third class. Now I was in second class, going from the known to an unknown, but the unknown felt more welcoming than the known. Besides, I had the company of others with whom I had schooled at the Alliance High.
Some, like me, knew college only as a dream, but others, who had graduated from Alliance to Makerere before us, had already experienced its life and seemed eager to display their college ways to the neophytes. Alcohol was the rite of passage from the rawness of school to the ripeness of college. The transformation was remarkable, in a way. Those whom I had known as pious and exemplary dwellers of Alliance would open beer bottles with the insouciance of seasoned drinkers.
There was a performance element to it, the opening salvo in the pressure to conform. For it soon became apparent that it was not enough for them to display the fact that within a year of college, they had left their high school life behind them; they seemed more eager to use the occasion of a second-class passenger train to initiate the novices into life.
They passed the beer around, some of my fellow neophytes eagerly draining the glasses. I had never tasted brewed beer in my life. The only taste of alcohol I had had was of the homemade mũratina, a kind of wine made from honey and yeast. I declined their offer. Just taste it, one of them asked me. Njĩhia had been a year ahead of me at Alliance but now behaved as if he had seen the light by simply having done a year at college and was on a mission to rescue me from Plato’s cave. The more I refused to see the light of the alcohol, the more insistent Njĩhia became, alternating his praises to the beer, which left a mustache of white foam above his upper lip, with mockery of my pretense at innocence and accusations that I was trying to appear holier than they. You are out of school, no longer a baby under headmaster Carey Francis. Still I refused to touch the glass even.
Stung by my continued refusal, Njĩhia suddenly rose from his seat and tried to force the drink on me. It spilled on my clothes. It now became a physical altercation. The others separated us. It was not the most pleasant way of experiencing second-class travel as a prospective college student, but I was glad I had stood my ground. My mother had brought me up to withstand any peer pressure that called on me to do that which otherwise revolted me. This trait would later help me to stand up for what I thought was right despite pressure to succumb to the current and popular. When later in college I drank, it was to satisfy my social needs, not to prove anything to my peers.
Freed from participating in the alcohol-mediated merriment, I sat by the window and looked out. The window framed the view of a continually vanishing presence. It was a series of landscape paintings of infinite varieties of color, size, and shape, from hills, valleys, rocks, thickets, and forests to the sprawling white-settler ranches, wheat fields, and coffee plantations.
And then it struck me. It was this very railway that had opened this rich and varied land to the white settlement. The stations and towns we passed, from Limuru through Nakuru and Eldoret to those near the border between Kenya and Uganda, came with the railway line built from 1899 to 1903. Blood had been spilt by proponents and opponents of the railway. The Koitalel-led Nandi resistance to the construction of the railway line and the colonial army suppressing the resistance were harbingers of the current LFA-led armed struggle of which my brother Good Wallace and Uncle Gĩcini Ngũgĩ were part. The sprawling rolling hills and fields of coffee and wheat the railway line generated spoke of white presence, but they also spoke eloquently of African loss. I was benefiting from a history that had come to negate my history.
At Tororo we crossed from terror-ridden Kenya on one side to a kind of promised land on the other side of the border town.
Even the land we entered after crossing the border into Uganda seemed enwrapped in a nimbus. The tidy manicured tea plantations of Limuru and Kericho in Kenya were replaced by Uganda coffee plants and bananas that seemed to grow in the freedom of the wild and yet carried full bunches. The vast verdure before us, all African owned, was breathtaking in its extravagant display of untrimmed tropical luxuriance.
Such must have been the scenery that greeted writer Winston Churchill when, in 1908, on his first African journey, he finally left the Kenya of cantankerous British colonial settlerdom and crossed into the British-protected African kingdom: “Uganda is from end to end a ‘beautiful garden’ where the ‘staple food’ of the people grows almost without labour . . . Does it not sound like a paradise on earth?” And in summary, “Uganda is the pearl (of Africa).”
The only interregnum to my view of the wild verdure was the Indian Madhvani’s sugar plantations in Jinja, but even these, seen through the windows of the second-class coaches, came across as green blades dancing in the wind. It was also my first encounter with an Indian-owned and -managed plantation. In Kenya, Indians, by law, were not allowed to own land—this despite their having helped build the railway from Mombasa to Kampala. But in Uganda, it was a different story as evidenced by the Madhvanis. Past the sugar, it was a sudden reentry into the rich tropical lushness, a continuation of Churchill’s beautiful garden.
Churchill had erased human presence from the Ugandan landscape. But when 50 years later I reemerged from the garden into the city at the railway station in Kibuli, it was into a human bustle and hustle of black presence selling matokes, potatoes, peanuts, clearly the fruits of their hands on their own soil. Black Baganda women in flowing busutis and black men in white kanzus and regular Western attire dominated the streets. Even the sight of Indians outside their shops along either side of the city streets added rather than took way from this incredible sight of black people who did not walk as if they were strangers in their city. Kenyan cities and towns always gave off an air of segregation and tension. Here there seemed more ease in the urban racial mingling, among the Asians and Africans particularly. There were no visible effects of the trade boycott of the year before. Absent, even among the few white bodies, was the armed swagger of the Kenya settler.
It was my first encounter with a modern city dominated by black presence, and it was strangely exhilarating. More personal, I had finally entered the capital of a country about which, for as early as I could recall, I had sung, To-Uga-nda, in rhythm with sounds of metal on metal of the trains bound for Kampala and the Baganda Kingdom.
Years later the train and its sounds would still ring in the prose of my fictional world, in the novel A Grain of Wheat, in particular. The fact is, the railway, built in the 1890s, the high noon of the imperial Scramble for Africa, had an impact on the economy, politics, culture, and life of the region so profound as to make it inseparable from the history of modern East Africa. A product of British imperial dreams, the train had landed me in the city of my dreams.
The bus from Wadegeya was a slow-motion climb to a biblical city on a hill, except that this city was here and now, and it had a real name, Makerere University College.
Red greeted us on Makerere Hill. Red flowing in the wind. Red-gowned students on all the paths across the campus. I was assigned to Northcote Hall for residency, and even there, I was greeted by men in red. Sir Geoffrey Northcote, after whom the hall was named on its completion in 1952, was former governor of Hong Kong and had been chairman of the University Council at the time of his death in 1948.
Makerere was several times bigger than the Alliance High School campus in Kikuyu, which I had known for the last four years. But it was the red gown, not the buildings, that dominated the visual landscape. Occasionally black gowns would flit across, breaking the uniform red, but these were few and far between. The black gowns signaled professors—lecturers, as they were called. For me both the red and the black signaled learning itself.
For a few days, we, the newcomers, in our regular clothes, looked every inch the outsider, ignorami, pretenders to the learning throne, but not a day too soon, we got our share of the red. It felt good. Learning swaddled in red had descended upon us.
No, not so fast, some of the seniors told us. We had not yet joined the celestial company of the anointed. We had yet to take an oath.
Oath? To me, a Kenyan, the word conjured death, destruction, and Hola massacres. I recalled the encounters I had had with the armed enforcers of the Emergency laws of Kenya trying to prove that I had not yet taken the oath of allegiance to LFA. But thousands others had taken the oath for land and freedom, and for that, or even on the suspicion alone, they still languished in concentration camps. Jomo Kenyatta and four of the Kapenguria Five,4 convicted of managing “Mau Mau” and administering the oath, were still held in Lodwar despite having served their term in prison. The eleven men at Hola had been bludgeoned to death only four months back because they would not acknowledge having taken the oath. And here, at Makerere, in this high seat of learning, they were telling me I would not become a member of the elect unless I took an oath.
Even the Queen of England, judges, the military brass, they all take oaths of office, someone explained. Yes, yes, but none had gone to prison or had his body parts severed on account of it.
The dreaded oathing ceremony turned out to be a grand affair with red-gowned neophytes descending on Main Hall from the four points of the campus. There was an interesting visual division. All the Reds were Africans and Asians; nearly all the Blacks were white Europeans. Whites in black at the front, on the dais; Blacks in red on the floor, facing them.
The academic registrar, Mr. Paul Vowles, administered the pledge: “I promise to seek the truth and study diligently; to obey the principal and all to whom obedience is due; and to keep the principles of the college.” Simple words, really, which we repeated after him with all the solemnity of a religious vow. A few prep words and we were done, but the vow continued vibrating in the mind: seek the truth.
What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer. This I would read later in Francis Bacon’s “Of Truth,” in my English class. At Alliance the word truth was always in the air. But there, it was a more like a preexisting entity; all we had to do was accept it. In fact, all we had to do to possess it was to kneel before the Cross. No, not possess it but let it possess us, a civilized spirit possession. One Truth for all. Unchanging. Eternal. It was a faith-dependent Truth.
This one to which we had just committed ourselves felt different, a process, closer to what I would later read in Aristotle: “The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, we do not collectively fail, but every one says something true about the nature of things, and while individually we contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed.”
Perhaps if I had read about how Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake at a central Roman square on February 17, 1600, for holding opinions contrary to the Roman Catholic faith, or that 20-year-old Scottish student Thomas Aikenhead was hanged on January 8, 1697, for holding truths contrary to those of the Presbyterian Church, I might have reacted differently.
For now, it was exhilarating, as if after living in a land of one truth, a colonial truth, I had affirmed the right to ask questions and contribute to a common pool of knowledge.
There were other rites of passage, social mostly, but nothing would beat my first night at a social evening in Northcote Hall. I would later learn that each hall organized its socials at different times. I assumed it was some kind of after-dinner party with students playing cards, chess, checkers, and table tennis or maybe a concert evening with students performing jokes and stories. I should have asked my seniors, but even then nothing would have prepared me for the night.
It was not simply the transformation of the dining hall into a dance arena that first ignited the excitement, but even more the sight of a real live band on the stage normally occupied by the high table. Apparently every social included live music, more often than not from Peter Nazareth’s band. Made up of only those students who could afford to buy their own instruments, it was first named Teddy Bear, after Elvis, before members settled on the Makerere Jazz Band. In the tradition of jazz, they had to be innovative and supplemented what they had by making their bass out of a tea chest with a broomstick and a cord attached, an idea they developed from skiffle musicians. But on this night Northcote had attracted a band from the town.
Northcoters, all men, were the first to arrive, some in threepiece suits but nearly all in ties and bow ties, hanging around in groups, and then, suddenly the excitement. Buses carrying ladies, mostly nurses, from Mulago and Mengo hospitals, had arrived, and the ladies trooped in. The pattern, I would later learn, never changed, year in, year out; only the players changed, graduations replaced by new admissions. The girls would be brought in there in a rented bus, stay for the duration of the dance party, and then be taken back to their lairs in the hospital. Don’t be fooled: the ladies were not in the white uniform of nurses, and the scent that filled the air had nothing in common with the smell of hospital.
At Alliance the nearest to this glamorous presence were the Scottish country dances on grass lawns. In the village, it had been the feet of young men in their everyday, in huts badly lit with paraffin lamps, raising dust by themselves, so few women there were who would venture to such places at night. One guitar and one or two human voices provided the music. Men would dance in pairs, but mostly it was solo versus solo in moves that were more acrobatic than the feline motions on a ballroom floor. And now, on the Hill, Makerere Hill, this!
High heeled girls of Mengo and Mulago
In low cuts of half-sleeved and sleeveless dresses
Skirts adorned with shimmering beads
Necks bedecked with glittering jewelry
The looks of sheer delight on suited men
Who hold them close in waltz tango and foxtrot
Oh the grace of solemn pairs gliding on the floor
After every dance, the men would lead their glamorous partners back to the seats arranged against the four walls. Men remained standing in groups waiting for the next dance. Then suddenly the groups would break up, individuals gliding toward the walls to ask for a dance from a different lady.
We the neophytes also sat or stood in groups watching all this and daring each other to be the first to make a move. The ladies never seemed to say no, and they all came here to dance, collective guests, of us, the collective hosts, so why not play our role? It took some time before one of us gathered the courage to approach the glamorous presence. The success of the first one to break the self-imposed inhibition emboldened the others.
I had not taken into account the possibility of my nose becoming captive to the scent of perfume and my eyes that of what showed just above the low-cuts. I fought back the desire to simply stand and stare; and so instead of trying to keep up with moves I knew nothing about, I was soon stepping on my partner’s feet. When the dance was over, she didn’t wait for me to escort her back to her seat. Later when we neophytes exchanged reviews, I was struck by the similarities of our experience. Stepping on the feet of our partners was the common theme. The other was the sheer embarrassment afterward when we tried to go back for another dance with our previous victims and they froze us with icy looks or a slight shake of the head or by suddenly looking down or talking animatedly to their neighbor at our approach! Clearly we all suffered from the same malady. The seniors told us of the cure: MABADA. The Makerere Ball Room Dancing Association.
Of all the clubs and associations on the Hill, MABADA had the largest membership. The best part was the dance lessons the seniors offered new members. The dances, I discovered, were not in the freewheeling style of our village dances. These were very formalized affairs: from the posture, where and how to stand, to counting steps to the left, right, forward. Initially we practiced with pillows, holding them as if they were our partners. Then came the pairing, one man being the pilot and the other the piloted by turns. Eventually we were ready for the first trial of our skills.
It was a MABADA-organized event at the Main Hall. Everything about the event, open to all, was in every way larger and more daunting than anything that we had seen in the halls. This time the ladies came from all the women centers, mostly hospitals, in and around Kampala. Faculty, too. Many people came partnered with wives, husbands, or girlfriends. The seating areas were all outside the dancing hall, in the open. My first night of dance as a MABADA graduate was also a test case of nerve and footwork. Once again it was the waltz, tango, and foxtrot that dominated the floor. It was so exhilarating to dance without stepping on your partner’s feet:
Then suddenly comes samba or rock and roll
And statuesque pairs break loose
But it’s the Lingala music from the Congo
That finally conquers the Ballroom part of
Makerere Ballroom Dancing Association
Bodies become loose and float and fly
As if seeking freedom from gravity
Even then there were still a few things to learn. If three or more ladies sit at the same table and the first one rejects your hand, then you don’t ask the others, for they will certainly say no. You go to a different table farthest from the scene of first rejection and try your luck there. Nothing personal, just the playing out of group dynamics.
Having mastered the ins and outs and formalities of the social evening and the Makerere dance floor, it was time to test what one was made of by going to a nightclub: Top Life near Mengo and later Suzana in Nakulabye. The social evenings had been confined to hall membership. The MABADA dances attracted the elite in and outside the Hill. But the nightclub brought together the mighty and the low, Makerere and the city, the partnered and the unpartnered. The resident or visiting band was bigger, with a whole array of instruments. Neon lights added to the intimacy, mystery, and wonder. This was the real thing:
Triumphant notes of the trumpet
Saucy sexy sounds of the saxophone
Cymbals piano xylophone
Maraca rattles and drum beats
Guitar strings from the bass to soprano spring
Haunting calls of horns and clarinet
They talk they challenge they moan
Sometimes they go solo
Each taking the center the others supporting
Then all come together and cry and groan and scream
Body captives of sound mass together on the floor
Winged with desire they swing sway sweat and swoon
Oh oh oh step up this step
Oh oh oh this step must never stop
Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh
Cigarette smoke and stale smell of beer
Cover bodies crooning in corners
But soon too soon or so it seems the sound fades to
Reluctant relaxed bodies saunter to the seats
They laugh and shout and whisper and drink
Hearts throb for the next round of sound in sync
Friday or Saturday nights were the best for nightclubbing. One had a whole Sunday to nurse a hangover and, for the religiously inclined, to attend chapels to seek forgiveness for sins committed under the influence.
The faculty seemed supportive of the view of truth seeking that we had sworn to. They encouraged us to develop our viewpoints, not regurgitate theirs or faithfully reproduce what we read in books—the difference between high school and college, they added. In school they spoon-fed you; in college, you held the spoon and fed yourself.
I didn’t need the homilies. I took the vow seriously, and it affected my attitude to books and classes. I would judge myself not by the grade I got but by the bar that I would set for myself. Nothing drastic about this; it was a restatement of my mother’s question: Is that the best? But now I had taken a vow to pursue the ideal, to track down truth wherever it might lead me on the road to the best.
I soon discovered, within the first year, that not every faculty member held this rosy view of the quest. In the first year, I took courses in history, English, economics, and the optional religious studies. I had had an on-and-off love affair with the Bible, a book in which Blake’s marriage of heaven and hell was consummated in terror and promise. I had also hoped that the course would be a study of religion in general, African and Eastern included.
Christianity, divided into Catholics and Protestants, was the dominant religion on the Hill. There were a very few Muslims, but they had to borrow space for their worship. There were two chaplains and chapels: Reverend Denis Payne for Saint Francis and Father Paul Foster for Saint Augustine. Payne was Anglican but served all Protestants; Foster was a Benedictine but served all the Roman Catholics. Nothing could be more different than their personalities: Payne, shy, sly, and feisty but seemingly humble; Foster, fast, affable, and flamboyant but seemingly understanding.
The religious studies turned out to be a study of Christianity only. Lectures for the academic part were shared between the Benedictine Catholic and the Anglican priests. It was the “humble” Payne whose intellectual intolerance first came out, during his discourse on the Reformation. He mentioned the 95 theses that Martin Luther pinned on a church door criticizing the abuses of indulgence and other ills, and of course the Counter-Reformation with the 1545 Council of Trent.
I had been baptized a Protestant of the Scottish variety, but during a discussion that followed Payne’s lecture on the Reformation, I said that on evidence it seemed that the Roman Catholic had the correct position. How could a politician, a king or queen in the case of the Anglican Church, become the head of a religious institution? There were times, of course, when popes commanded crowns, armies, and harems. To me, at least, it seemed a clear case of continued mixing of politics and religion—the very practice the architects of the Protestant Reformation seemed to be waxing angry about. I was not taking sides, but we were in college bound by a common oath in a quest for the truth, right? And this was an academic debate, right? Rev. Payne did not see it that way. He stopped the discussion to give a sermon on how one could become a Catholic if one wanted; he had worked out a procedure with his Benedictine counterpart. I had not told the man that I wanted to change denominational allegiance.
His attitude reminded me of a similar reaction from one of my teachers at Alliance, who became hostile when, in response to his claim that Jesus spoke very simple English, I pointed out that Jesus spoke Aramaic. I had not taken kindly to Mr. Smith of the Alliance High School, but I couldn’t opt out of his class. In school, all classes were compulsory and the order of knowledge fixed. But did I have to take it at college and for an elective? I never went back to Payne’s class. That was my first exercise of my academic and religious freedom, and it felt good.
Three years later, it would be the turn of the flamboyant affable Foster to come out of the pages of Plato and fly his true racial colors. He didn’t confine his narrow-minded view of the universe to the classroom. Apparently he never let it intrude into his lectures on Greek thought, or it may have been camouflaged by his social flashiness, but in 1962 he let it all show in a book he titled White to Move, published in the United Kingdom to modest critical acclaim. As if he had read Carothers and Cartwright and imbibed their uncanny ability to read black minds, Foster told hilarious stories of his African students who would never answer a straight question with a straight answer. Asked about that bird on that tree, they would talk about a tree on a hill near their home. It was his way of saying that logic and rationality were alien to the African mind. His students, who had worshipped him as this free, liberal, broadminded thinker and writer, with a strong liking for Africa and Africans, were pained and furious when they read how Foster had seen them. They had hugged him as a fellow human; he had embraced them as black objects of his colonial anthropological gaze.
In contrast to both the sly shy but feisty Payne, who shunned difficult questions, and the flamboyant affable Foster, who fooled foe and friend alike, was the Reverend Fred Welbourne, who lived out his name in his friendly and sensitive interactions with students and faculty. Welbourne, warden of Mitchell Hall, who joined Makerere in 1948 to lecture in physics and physick the souls of the Protestants as the first chaplain of Saint Francis, could have been lifted straight out of the pages of Graham Greene. Even his sartorial tastes, the white Baganda kanzus for robes and the sandals for shoes, tested orthodox colonial views of priesthood. He was open to all views on any subject, even on religious matters, devoting his energies to a study of African religions and beliefs, which, again, offended orthodox priesthood. How could he call devil worship a religion, much less devote time to study it? But he was essentially a Christian believer. On being appointed to Makerere, he was summoned by the Missionary Society in London to be told that his mandate was to convert the entire country to Christianity. I did not have a chance to take Welbourne’s classes, but I, like everyone else, knew of him. He was a missionary with a liberal mission.
Intellectual intolerance and narrow-mindedness were not confined to chapels and chaplains, as I soon found out in my class in economics. Economics had two divisions: theory and history. Dr. Cyril Ehrlich, who taught us economic history, was short with a head that carried a shiny horseshoe bald spot. He spent the first twenty minutes of every lecture telling us how intellectually poor we were and warning us against being bigheaded. “You think you are very intelligent, just because you have come to Makerere? You think you know everything just because of setting foot in a college? You know nothing!” Then he would rattle on about universities abroad, the high standards, the expectations. The daily putting down of his students was worse than anything I had ever put up with in school. I felt trapped in Ehrlich’s class. I couldn’t drop out of a mandatory course without incurring the fatal F. At the end of the second year were the terminal exams called Preliminary, and an F in any one of the areas could mean the end of my educational journey. I soldiered on, but his class didn’t feel like the open society that the vows of academic freedom for truth had led me to expect. It was in his class that a vague idea of publishing a book as an undergraduate began to form. I would have loved to have shown him that we had what it takes to be who we want to be.
I never met the affable Foster, the expert on the black mind, in class, so for me, Payne and Ehrlich remained the exceptions, not the norm. In English and history, at least, I encountered a faculty tolerant of conflicting views, but who nevertheless made it clear that learning was a discipline, not a series of opinions. There were things called facts, evidence, citation, logic, comparison, and of course organization of material into a coherent argument.
At the other end was Emil Rado, from economics, who in my last years would form a semisecret club of thirteen, drawn from faculty and students. It was a club for those with unique talents, supposedly. But the number had to remain thirteen. Why thirteen? I wondered. Thirteen was supposed to be the unlucky number, for the English at least. When recently I told my son, Mukoma, about this and my puzzlement about the number, he said it was probably derived from Jesus and the twelve disciples! Was Rado the Jesus to our twelve disciples? Probably not quite, for, on leaving Makerere, one ceased to be a member automatically, even the founder. The other members would then elect a replacement from among faculty and students. The thirteen remained but their composition changed. Apart from the exclusive secrecy, I never saw anything out of the ordinary in matters discussed or in the depth of the discussion, nothing different from what prevailed in ordinary nonexclusive gatherings. But that was in my last year at college.
The most consistent in encouraging diversity of views was the pipe-smoking Peter Dane. He also stood out for his close reading of texts. On Dickens’s Great Expectations, he made the characters, especially Magwitch, the convict, come alive for us. Australia was a penal colony where the English undesirables were deported for life: they could never return to Albion’s shores without facing arrest, conviction, and prison. Dane’s delineation of Magwitch’s elaborate attempts to create his own gentleman in the Pip character, and the temptation to come back to enjoy, though surreptitiously, the sight of his creation, was moving, and without his saying so, Dane made us see the novel in terms of class exclusion and empire. He brought Dickens closer home to us. Colony and Crown, prison and palace, they produced each other. Great Expectations became a favorite, and a group of us adopted the name Pip.
When, after the terminal second-year Preliminary exams, I was admitted into the three-year honors program in English, I looked forward to having more time with Peter Dane. But he disappeared from Makerere; later, we heard that he had moved to the University of Auckland, New Zealand, which puzzled me immensely. How could anybody leave Makerere, which we took to be the most highly coveted institution in the world, for an island?
Years later I would meet him again, twice. First in 1984 when at his Auckland University I gave the Robb lectures, which became the book, Decolonising the Mind, but I don’t recall any interactions on that occasion. The second time was in 2005 when he delivered the encomium on the occasion of the honorary doctorate the same university bestowed upon me. In his talk, he recalled the Makerere days, 40 years back, which had a special meaning for him, the job being his first as a university professor.
Over lunch I learned a little about the amazing life journey that led him to that first academic job in Makerere. He was born in Berlin in 1921 to a German father and a Jewish mother. He fled Hitler to the United Kingdom in 1939. The eighteenyear-old youth was interned as an enemy alien in Australia in the 1940s at a camp near Wagga Wagga. After the war, he went back to England, where he met his future wife, Gabriele Herrmann, who nursed him with love back to life and belief. They married in 1945, and in 1956, with her support, he graduated in English from the University of London. She remained the love of his life for 50 years, till he lost her to an illness. At the time I met him in Auckland the second time, he had retired, married the second love of his life, a Maori lady, and still lived in their home in the Bay of Islands.
At lunch I couldn’t help but go back to our classes on Dickens’s Great Expectations in Makerere. I recalled the magic of his Magwitch presentation, but I also recalled that he never said a thing about his own sojourn in Australia. The encounter made me realize how little I knew the Makerere Dane; I had always assumed him to be of English stock, an academic whose life had been books and books and more books.
Though the faculty was largely white, it was actually diverse in cultural backgrounds. In the Department of English alone, there were the Irish Alan and Phyllis Warner; the South Africans, D.D. Stuart, Trevor Whittock, and Murray Carlin; the Scottish Margaret MacPherson; and the taciturn Englishman R. Harris. The English David Cook and Geoffrey Walton would come later.
My encounter with Dane made me look back to my early days in Makerere and wonder what hidden and complex histories my professors may have carried behind the masque of black academic gowns, stern faces, and measured words. It was one of the chroniclers of Makerere, Carol Sicherman, who recently told me that Murray Carlin fought in North Africa, very much animated by a wish, as a South African Jew, to fight the Nazis. The pro-Nazi leanings of some Boers must have been a powerful incentive, and yet at the time of my studies of D.H. Lawrence with him, you could not read this drama from his inscrutable face.
Sometimes we wear masks
Not with deceptive intent
Not even to shield faces from the sun
But the within from the without
Or save the day from the gaze of yesterday
We wear masks
The better to dance the big masquerade of just living
From Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening. Used with permission of The New Press. Copyright © 2016 by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.